NEWS
08/09/2015 16:02 EDT | Updated 08/09/2016 01:12 EDT

Canada's Aurelie Rivard could win seven medals in Parapan American Games pool

TORONTO — She travels the planet as one of Paralympic swimming's brightest young stars, and has already stood atop numerous international medal podiums.

But Aurelie Rivard looks forward to the day she can do what other teenagers take for granted — text with two hands.

The 19-year-old from Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., who was born with an underdeveloped left hand, could win seven medals at the Parapan American Games this week. The Games come on the heels of a world championship performance that saw her win two gold and two silver.

And the punctuation mark to an outstanding year will come in September, when she gets her first-ever prosthetic hand, custom-matched to her skin tone and complete with heated sensors in the fingertips for texting.

"I didn't even know they could do that," Rivard marvelled.

Rivard turned down an offer for a prosthetic hand several years ago, saying the quality wasn't great, and it would have restricted the movement in her wrist.

"But a couple of months ago I saw a girl and she had a fake hand, and I thought 'Oh, that's so cool,'" Rivard said. "I just want to have the feeling of two hands that I haven't had before.

"And it's actually going to help me a little bit more because my right arm is getting a bit tired, my shoulder has issues, injuries sometimes, so it will just motivate me to carry my books with my left hand, or just a purse or something."

Rivard and her twin sister Charlotte grew up swimming, starting when they were just a year old. Rivard credits sports with helping her overcome an anxiety disorder she developed as a 10-year-old that was so debilitating, she was afraid to leave the house alone. Sleepovers often caused panic attacks. 

In retrospect, she believes it was partly related to her disability.

"Because I felt different," Rivard said.

Her anxiety was so overwhelming before races, she would vomit on the pool deck.

"But swimming, high-level sport, completely changed me, because I was facing my fears every single day," Rivard said. "I had to travel the world by myself, in (countries with) other languages, in other cultures.

"Honestly, it saved me from this sort of anxious life. Over the years, I just gained a lot of self-confidence and I'm not anxious anymore at all, I've got a lot of confidence, and today I like sharing my experience with other young swimmers. . . I tell them they can get through this and have a better life."

Rivard should be one of Canada's biggest stars in the pool at next summer's Paralympics in Rio.

She made her Paralympic debut in 2012 in London, winning the silver medal in the 400-metre freestyle at just 16.  

At the recent world championships in Glasgow, she won the 50 and 400-metre freestyle events, and was second in the 200 individual medley and 100 freestyle.

The Parapan Am Games represent a new challenge; she's never competed in seven events. Her goal for the Games? Seven medals.

"And as much gold as possible," she said, laughing. "It's going to be tough, I'm going to have to work hard, but I think it's quite achievable."

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press